The end of event sponsorship marketing? How the World Cup lost its pull

 
Liam Ward-Proud
Consumers are confused about which brands are World Cup sponsors (Source: Getty Images Sport)
Event sponsorship is one of the oldest forms of advertising – when the Olympic games was first revived in Athens in the 1850s, it was at the behest of Albanian businessman and sponsor Evangelis Zappas. But with brands scrambling to get noticed amid the current World Cup marketing melee, there are signs that the centuries-old model may be under strain.

Research by GlobalWebIndex found that 42 per cent of UK, US and Brazilian consumers rightly think that Visa is a World Cup sponsor, just 4 percentage points higher than rival MasterCard (which isn’t). Pepsi, whose competitor Coca-Cola is an official sponsor, registered the highest awareness as a World Cup “sponsor” among US consumers, despite also not being one.

Perhaps just as worrying for Fifa and its official partners, Unruly Media found that non-sponsors Nike and Samsung ranked second and third globally for the amount of online shares their football-themed campaigns received in the run-up to the World Cup. Nike’s star-studded effort, featuring Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo, generated almost 2.4m shares (for a “share rate” of 1.4 per cent), compared to official sponsor Adidas’s 771,000 and share rate of 1 per cent. In our fragmented media landscape, with “ambush campaigns” able to ride a wave of public interest without paying for the pleasure, are official sponsorship deals worth their considerable cost?

If the farcical brand control efforts of Fifa and the International Olympic Committee are anything to go by (telling players not to wear a certain brand of headphones, banning cake decorators in Cornwall from replicating the Olympic rings logo), it’s a danger they’re alert to.

“The gap between what official sponsors and ambush marketers can do has certainly narrowed in recent years,” says Michael Parker, director of sponsorship at Dentsu Aegis’s Sports & Entertainment Network. A billboard ad at a football game allowed brands to more or less monopolise consumers’ eyeballs in the 1980s, when the game was either watched live or on TV. Today, with a far wider variety of media channels available, control over messaging is diminished. As John Scurfield, head of innovation at MediaCom Sport points out, around 3,000 World Cup-related tweets were sent each minute during the last tournament – and as Adidas has shown this year, being an official partner of Fifa’s doesn’t mean all that much on social media.

But it’s not necessarily the end of the line for sponsorship marketers. Both Parker and Scurfield argue that, stripping away the successes of ambush campaigns, there is still considerable residual value in being an official partner.

“With the rights to intellectual property (World Cup logos etc.) and physical space at events, sponsors can do a lot of interesting stuff around experiential marketing,” says Scurfield. Just looking at the online statistics can obscure the value of these less quantifiable campaigns.

But even on the web, Scurfield suggests that some official sponsors may be missing a trick by not linking their on and offline campaigns. “Acquiring a set of rights is only the start. You need to work on what we call ‘connected sponsorships’ – if you’re spending just 30p of every pound activating these campaigns online, that’s not enough.” And outside the sports industry, Parker points out, the figures aren’t so gloomy for sponsorships. He highlights how O2 has used gigs and other event sponsorships to drive its Priorities scheme.

Sponsorship marketing may be under pressure, but it’s not about to disappear. What remains, however, probably wouldn’t be familiar to attendees of Zappas’s Olympics.

Liam Ward-Proud is business features writer at City A.M.

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